columnU.S.-Israel Relations

Harris and Gantz are playing politics with Israel’s future

Instead of promoting a ceasefire and a Palestinian state to undermine Netanyahu, the message from Washington and Israeli politicians should be for Hamas to surrender.

Minister-without-Portfolio Benny Gantz speaks to reporters at the Defense Ministry in Tel Aviv, Dec. 16, 2023. Photo by Noam Revkin Fenton/Flash90.
Minister-without-Portfolio Benny Gantz speaks to reporters at the Defense Ministry in Tel Aviv, Dec. 16, 2023. Photo by Noam Revkin Fenton/Flash90.
Jonathan S. Tobin
Jonathan S. Tobin is editor-in-chief of JNS (Jewish News Syndicate). Follow him @jonathans_tobin.

For five months, the Biden administration has been talking out of both sides of its mouth about the war between Israel and Hamas. It supported Israel’s efforts but also sought to hamstring efforts by the Israel Defense Forces and treated the critiques of the war by Hamas apologists as legitimate. But after much hesitation, mixed signals and considerable political damage, it has finally found a coherent message and a goal that it can get behind. It wants to end the war on virtually any terms, and it wants to eliminate one of the parties involved.

But in contrast to where it began this journey on Oct. 8, the Biden administration is clearly no longer committed to ending the reign of Hamas in Gaza. The party that it wants to finish off is Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his government.

That’s the point of the latest administration salvos blasted at Jerusalem by figures such as Vice President Kamala Harris. Equally as important is its decision to invite to Washington current Netanyahu coalition partner and future political rival Benny Gantz. The head of the National Unity Party, who currently serves as a member of the war cabinet, is heading to Washington this week, and the Biden administration is rolling out the red carpet for him. He will have appointments with Harris as well as with National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan. The expectation is that President Joe Biden will also join in one of those meetings—and don’t be surprised if the White House photographers and press corps just happen to be around to commemorate it.

A deliberate snub and payback

This has enraged Netanyahu, who instructed the Israeli embassy in Washington to play no part in the affair. Contrary to normal diplomatic procedure, the government wasn’t consulted about one of its members being invited to the White House. And it is doubly infuriating for the prime minister since he is still waiting for an invitation to the White House since he returned to office at the end of 2022.

But there is more to this dispute than the insult involved in inviting Netanyahu’s likely chief opponent in the next Israeli election, whenever that occurs. Nor is it just a matter of belated payback to Netanyahu from Obama administration alumni who currently control U.S. foreign policy for accepting the invitation of the Republican-controlled House of Representatives to address a joint meeting of Congress in 2015 to advocate against the disastrous Iran nuclear deal. The point of the snub to the prime minister—and the boost to his current cabinet colleague and rival—is not just a chance for the Biden team to once again vent their animus for Israel’s elected leader. They see it as part of an effort to end the war with Hamas in Gaza, which will leave the terrorist organization standing. That will serve as the start of a campaign to both topple Netanyahu and begin the push to reward the Palestinians for Oct. 7 with an independent state.

That’s why Gantz is doing his country no service by being the willing dupe in this scheme. Nor for that matter (despite his ego being flattered by the honor the Americans are giving him) is he helping his political prospects. Not for the first time an effort by Washington to humble Netanyahu could wind up boomeranging on them by actually helping him rally support at home.

Kamala Harris, Palestinian champion

Gantz should be particularly wary of being seen as an ally of Harris. The vice president has emerged as the administration’s chief advocate for the Palestinians since the war began. As a New York Times article made clear, she has been a consistent critic of the administration’s willingness to continue supporting the war against Hamas. Harris is lightly regarded by the American public, having lower favorability ratings than the president. But she has been the one making the argument inside the administration that the president should be listening to the left-wing intersectional base of his party, which is avowedly anti-Israel and, as we saw during the lead-up to last month’s Michigan primary, also antisemitic.

On Sunday, she used the commemoration of the civil-rights movement in Selma, Ala., to voice her opinions about the war. Though she did note that Hamas has not agreed to ceasefire terms, she stated that the imperative was for the war to end because of the humanitarian crisis in Gaza, especially in those parts that are still under the control of the terrorist group. She said she supported the release of the hostages and stated that the terrorist threat must be ended even though the ceasefire would be a victory for Hamas. She blamed Israel for imposing restrictions on aid to the Palestinians without noting that Hamas has been stealing most of the aid since the war began, just as it used the billions that poured into Gaza in the last 16 years to build its military infrastructure and tunnels rather than do anything for the 2 million people living there.

As the Times reported, she and other administration officials plan to use their meetings with Gantz to advocate for an end to the fighting and then a postwar push for Palestinian statehood. As one elated Haaretz writer noted, this is not just an effort to prevent Israel from winning the war. It’s also a pivot back to Biden’s pre-Oct. 7 policy towards the Jewish state in which he had made no secret of his support for the anti-Bibi resistance that sought not just to prevent reform of Israel’s out-of-control judiciary but to overturn the results of the November 2022 Knesset election.

Backing the anti-Bibi resistance

Biden saw the return of Netanyahu to power as an obstacle to his hopes for a revival of Obama’s policy of appeasement of Iran. He particularly lamented the fall of the weak government led by Yair Lapid and Naftali Bennet, which had gone along with Washington’s giveaway of certain Israeli natural-gas fields to Hezbollah-controlled Lebanon, something that pleased Tehran while weakening the Jewish state. The Israeli left mimicked Biden’s hyperbolic rhetoric about his Republican foes as enemies of democracy by claiming that Netanyahu’s judicial reform proposals, which would have made Israel more democratic, were actually a move towards authoritarianism. And Biden was happy to play along by agreeing with them. Since Oct. 7, the open sniping against Netanyahu had to move into the background as the war against Hamas became the focus of the increasingly uneasy alliance between the two nations.

The only message that Hamas should be hearing from Washington is one in which its surrender is imperative. That’s the only way the humanitarian crisis among Palestinians can be solved, and it’s also the only position in which Israel’s security is assured. It’s unfortunate that the only Democrat to be saying that is Sen. John Fetterman (D-Pa.), who some left-wingers now regard with disdain after defending him against right-wing critics who thought that the legislator, who suffered a stroke during his campaign, wouldn’t be able to do his job.

While Israelis may be divided about Netanyahu, they are united about the need to continue this war and oust Hamas. That’s why Gantz is making a mistake in playing along with the administration’s anti-Netanyahu scheming.

Because of the policies he pursued as chief of staff of the Israel Defense Forces and as Defense Minister, Gantz, like Netanyahu, bears a great deal of the responsibility for the Oct. 7 failures of Israel’s military and intelligence establishments. But his Boy Scout image and military bearing, along with the infatuations of a certain portion of the Israeli voting public for ex-generals, has allowed him to remain relatively popular. Still, he’s also no political genius, having repeatedly been outmaneuvered by both Netanyahu and other Israeli leaders.

Allowing himself to be used as a prop by Israel’s leading critics in Washington is also undermining his own stands on the issues. The last thing he should want to have hung around his neck in the next election is the title of the chief favorite of Americans who want to keep Hamas alive and give the Palestinians a state from which they can make good on their promise to repeat the atrocities that took place in southern Israeli communities on Oct. 7.

The president should ignore Harris and remember that there are far more votes to be lost among pro-Israel voters than among those who sympathize with Hamas. Nevertheless, the war in Gaza is politically inconvenient for Democrats, who resent having to aid a government led by Netanyahu. But it’s altogether different for Israelis.

Opposing a Palestinian state

Whether or not they like the prime minister, Israelis understand that the current war is an existential struggle in which the fate of their state hangs in the balance. Playing political games about the alliance between the two democracies while Hamas is still armed and able to fight is something that American politicians can afford to do. But it is something that those, like Gantz, who will ultimately have to face his own country’s public and not pro-Hamas Democrats in Michigan, should not be doing.

Opposition to Hamas’s continued existence and Palestinian statehood for the foreseeable future isn’t just Netanyahu’s position. It’s the view of a broad consensus of the Israeli public—from left to right—since the murder of 1,200 men, women and children on Oct. 7. Any aid Gantz offers Biden and Harris to pursue those goals doesn’t so much undermine the prime minister as it does the security of an embattled Jewish state.

Some Israelis have always foolishly looked to Washington for help in achieving Netanyahu’s defeat—a goal they’ve been unable to accomplish on their own. That’s usually helped the premier in the past and may do so again. Oct. 7 should doom Netanyahu, but by allowing him to be portrayed as the obstacle to Palestinian statehood, Biden is making the same mistake Obama repeatedly made. In going to Washington right now with such an agenda on the table, Gantz isn’t hurting Netanyahu as much as he is allowing the administration to play him for a fool.

Jonathan S. Tobin is editor-in-chief of JNS (Jewish News Syndicate). Follow him: @jonathans_tobin.

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